Band of Brothers: The Rise of Chosen Family Values
Last year I was drinking in one of my local bars when the barista on duty comes up to me and starts talking. Introducing herself as Rizzo, she starts asking all sorts of questions like the whiskeys I like, friends I have, and what I do for a living. ‘Unusual behavior for a barista’ I thought, as she was not giving the other locals the same amount of attention. And she was a very attractive, so naturally I began considering the idea that she was coming onto me.
When I asked to meet her outside of work she replied she doesn’t do that but to meet her at her other place of work, another nearby bar called Daily Refresher in a couple of days. Perplexed, I inquired the other barkeeps about her since I was getting mixed signals. The picture they painted was that Rizzo was very friendly and good with people, but was already seeing someone.
Fast forward two weeks later, we did end up hanging out at a park and I asked her why the interest in me if she was already dating. Rizzo said that she didn’t necessarily know why herself. Just that she normally keeps to herself, but something good about me and wanted to get to know me. An unusual, comfortable bond formed between us from that point on, one that was more than friends and very affectionate, but nowhere near lovers. That doesn’t come easily to me. I eventually was able to reference it to something of a younger sister, as she started referring to me as big brother.
By blood, I already have a younger sister, but in many ways I felt relational bond with this woman who started randomly talking to me at a bar because she was curious. And it was at this point I began hearing the phrase thrown around, ‘chosen family’.
Blood and Water
A friend described the term to me as “the family you choose for yourself”. They didn’t have to be blood-related and could apply to anyone. The concept was nothing new to me. Historically, blood relations not getting along with each other and choosing giving others priority over them, even killing each other if enough was at stake had been going on for centuries. Royals especially were notorious for it. If you wanted to destroy an empire, just have the ruler have more than one son and let the blood flow.
However, the idea of blood being thicker than water is very strong in my family. And most other American families too I would think. Blood relatives are supposed to care for each other, watch each other’s back, and defer special preference to them when the shit hit the fan. Hell, I heard it so often that one would think a bond would just magically appear between siblings and cousins instantaneously or by osmosis if you stuck them together long enough.
But I found that not the case. In fact mostly, it seemed like these actions of loyalty that were supposed to be motivated by love, were often more so by obligation.
"Intelligent animals naturally look to their peers to define the world around them and what role they should play: who they should be and what is acceptable or not. So it would make sense that if we can’t get that formation from one source, we would go to another."
Can You See the Signs?
In an article of Psychoanalysis Now, psychiatrist, Gerald Shoenewolf, states that many families in fact can be anything but loving and supportive, such as abusive and alcoholic ones. There maybe a sense of obligation there, but rarely love and certainly not empathy. Rather, many times we find ourselves looking to those outside of blood to become like family, whether that’s extended or replacing blood. From my experience, I’ve seen family bonds based more on mutual experiences rather than anything obligatory. They refer to it as love, but if those experiences were not there, it had the feeling and appearance of a wooden caricature: something trying to imitate something real, but failing.
I had also heard that a similar occurrence can happen among soldiers and other occupations of extreme stress. That because they shared such intense and traumatic experiences together, a bond can be formed that unintentionally can even trump that of family or at least rival it, like a band of brothers if you will.
I ran this idea by one my cousins during a discussion about the power of marriage. Being the staunch conservative and Christian that he is, my cousin disagreed with this perspective, saying that it didn’t match with the Bible and more so, that if there was genuine love involved, blood would always win out. Also, among other religious and ethnic communities that I served, blood also trumps all else, but more on the basis of honor and obligation. They didn’t share the same sense of repugnance to duty and obligations to certain ethics that Americans and second, third and fourth generation immigrants did.
Either way, they all come from the strain that believes that blood should outweigh everything else for one reason or another. Life seems to prove otherwise though. When we are young kids, we look for reference points, and that certainly can be blood family, but not all the time. Intelligent animals naturally look to their peers to define the world around them and what role they should play: who they should be and what is acceptable or not. So it would make sense that if we can’t get that formation from one source, we would go to another.
My interest in chosen family is about it becoming an accepted, cultural phenomenon.
Going back before the 1960’s, we would find the cultural emphasis on the opposite of the spectrum. In fact, American society prided itself on being family centric. The values that made for a good American come from the home and it is the family that passes on those values. Of course, we still had our friends but they were a clear second to blood.
I think however all that changed after the 1960s. Traditional America has been turned on its head and so had its values. More radical ideas about individualism and how we related to others now challenged them. After all, inflammatory issues like Civil rights and the Vietnam War had divided many American families on what their values should be. More to the point, the younger generation wanted to make a break from their predecessors and in doing so found they needed to create surrogate families. These were peers who understood them rather than barked orders at them and were condescending.
Even though that generation eventually became part of the main stream, with many of them forming a new, conservative base rooted more in experience than inheriting traditional values, the spirit of chosen family stuck. It became a persistent idea passed down from one younger generation to another, mostly rooted in looking for understanding from others rather than judgment as they tried to find themselves.
In 2017 now, chosen family arguably is starting to surpass the role of blood relation. Issues with sexual identity, gender association, continuing racial issues, and new values have created more divides among American families in the last thirty years. Millennials more so have had to look for kinship among those “in the know”. And with the advent of internet continuing to revolutionize communication among peoples over long distances and transmitting ideas, they are creating families that are both flesh and digitize.
Twitter, Facebook, and even Youtube channels have created bonds among people who may never see each other face to face and yet still refer to each other as family (if they’re civil) over common views and interests not shared by blood. And with individuality being our god now, we tend to see blood family more and more as options rather than obligations or status quo. In fact, many often shudder at the idea of dutiful love as a hindrance to their identity and independence, though not all.
Perhaps the only question in the new family values is in how strong it is against internal strife. The strength of blood bonds related is that DNA relation is supposed to bind them together even when they hate or don't like each other. It is a non-negotiable. Chosen family however, being an extension of our individuality does leave open the possibility of that member leaving us for some reason. Objectively speaking, loyalty is not always a 100% guarantee.
Sharing the Neighborhood
Does this mean that traditional families are becoming a thing of the past and going the way of the dinosaurs? No, I don’t think that either. They’re strong Americans families around to hold the ideal together as a real goal, faithful to blood thinker than water. Not everyone’s families are hellish, and the older generations are still with us to remind us of their values up as newer ones rise up.
But neither is chosen family values going anywhere. Descending from the privileged option limited to nobles, to the kid playing down the street, to the current Facetime chat you had an hour ago, choosing whom we call brother or sister is now more prominent than ever. Like two galaxies colliding with each other over long periods of time, the two versions of family will likely clash with each other over the next few decades. Eventually though, one of two results will emerge.
Either our society will strike some sort of balance between blood and chosen family values, or some new version of the two combined will be born. Supporters of both values are strong and neither is willing to just fall by the wayside to be replaced by the other. We’ll just have to see how it coalesces.